State-Society Nexus and Gender: Armenian Women in Postcommunist Context

Anna Ohanyan. Women and Politics around the World: A Comparative History and Survey. Editor: Joyce Gelb & Marian Lief Palley. Volume 2: Country Profiles. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2009.


The place of women in Armenian society has largely been shaped by conflicting tendencies and competing tensions between the culture and governmental policies exercised in the 20th century. Cultural prescriptions and contours of women’s roles have rarely been reflected by corresponding governmental policies. Armenian culture has been more traditional, placing a strong emphasis on the family as the nucleus of society (Bakalian 1993, 14; O’Grady 1979, 38; Phillips 1979, 36). Against this backdrop, women have come to play key roles in maintaining the family and its values and norms, thereby solidifying the image of the “sacred mother” in Armenian society (Zeitlian 1995, 84; Ishkanian 2002, 384).

Discursive analyses on Armenian society have also stressed the role of women as being “inside the wall” of the “Armenian hearth,” while men are occupied with external roles. Moving beyond these symbols, women are central in the private sphere of the society, whereas men have been more dominant in the public sphere. Put differently, women’s roles have traditionally been considered central to the family and child rearing and more inwardly oriented. At the same time, ancient and medieval Armenian literature is full of strong female characters, epic heroines akin to Joan of Arc who prove themselves in story and history in their fabled battleground courage and characters akin to Anna Karenina in their lone struggles and resolve against norms of society.

The cultural prescriptions for women have been much slower to change and evolve over time than governmental policies, which have witnessed major swings in the 20th century. In the closing years of the 20th century, the collapse of the socialist system and the welfare state in Armenia has eroded the social safety net that women enjoyed, alternative policies on women’s issues have been slow to emerge. The postsocialist market economy has created an environment that has been generally poor in providing social welfare services, particularly as they relate to women, and the effect on women has been particularly harsh.

Soviet and Post-Soviet Years

The tension between cultural prescriptions and governmental policies was particularly acute during the Soviet years of Armenian history, as the official equality of men and women was one of the cornerstones of Soviet ideology and policy. The socialist engineers of the Soviet revolution and Soviet statehood believed industrialization and economic development would free women from the traditional confines of the family (Lapidus 1978, 55). It was also judged that women would play crucial roles in driving the socialist state-building. Ironically, socialist researchers and analysts were often in consensus with their counterparts in the West, who also believed modernization, economic development, and industrialization would dismantle traditional cultural limits on the roles of women (Clark and Clark 2004, 452).

In the beginning of the 1920s, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union introduced legislation that targeted numerous aspects of women’s lives, instituting for women a range of freedoms and rights in education, political participation, and social development (Ishkanian 2003a, 478). All of these initiatives meant to empower women in the newly formed Soviet state were implemented in a rigidly top-down manner, with very little grassroots support and initiative. The gradual development of the Soviet welfare state directly translated into a strong social safety net for women, who were then able and encouraged to enter the workforce. Women were supported by generous maternity and child care benefits, which enabled them to develop professionally. Universal primary education was introduced in 1930s, and universal secondary education in the 1950s. By the 1960s and 1970s, women had established parity in institutions of higher education. All of these developments have translated into near universal literacy rates, as well as a high level of education among women (Ishkanian 2003a, 481).

Subsidies for education and the creation of vocational institutions and a higher education system, coupled with women’s willingness to take advantage of the opportunities, resulted in a surge in the numbers of highly educated women. Again, the modernization theorists were hopeful that greater educational achievement for women would dramatically expand their engagement outside the home. And indeed, this was largely true in the Soviet Armenian context. Women entered the workforce in greater numbers. However, such advances in the public sphere contrasted with the culturally conservative values emphasizing their role within the family, producing what researchers have referred to as the “double burden”: women working both inside and outside the home (Stent 1993/1994, 66). A 2005 report from the National Statistical Service of the Republic of Armenia indicates that this double burden remains to this day. For example, on average, women in Armenia spend around 6 hours a day in housework, whereas men allocate merely 1 hour and 45 minutes to daily chores (National Statistical Service 2005, 84). Moreover, although Soviet Armenian society appreciated educated women, one could argue that this was for traditional purposes, namely because educated women made “better mothers.” In short, cultural values promoting a more inward orientation of women’s roles coexisted with rather liberal and progressive official governmental policies.

Despite the advances women achieved in the Soviet years, their occupational patterns within the labor force reflected the culturally rooted beliefs delineating that some professions are more “appropriate” for women than others. Such demarcations are also playing out during the post-Soviet transition, as private enterprises are primarily headed by men, political parties are primarily led by men, and the politicians who represent society are primarily men. The social, economic, and political spheres in contemporary Armenia are largely demarcated between their “masculine” and “feminine” segments, which manifests itself in latent or overt discrimination in hiring in the private and the public sector. For example, the literature on postcommunist civil society has made a case for the feminization of the nongovernmental organization (NGO) sector, a pattern Armine Ishkanian has also documented in Armenia (2003b, 7).

Overall, the governmental policies of fostering the inclusion of women into the political and economic aspects of society were highly ideological during the Soviet years (Stent 1993/1994, 66). These policies were designed to create the image of gender equality within Soviet societies, which, however, in a patriarchal context did little in terms of meaningful and sustainable engagement of women.

The post-Soviet era of transition, although less managed and less centralized, diluted many women’s advances that occurred during the socialist years. Systematic planning and comprehensive policies are lacking to empower women in the contemporary Republic of Armenia. As outlined in the following sections, contemporary women are poorly represented within the political system and in the emergent postcommunist market structures. The transition from a state to a market economy has been highly “gendered,” resulting in a concentration of women in less profitable economic activities and minimal access to and participation in privatized enterprises.

The Gendered Transition

The transition processes that followed the collapse of the socialist system have turned out to be more complex than initially expected by observers of the region. Moreover, many researchers talk about the end of the “transition paradigm” as the resultant outcomes and slow pace of the region’s socioeconomic recovery have failed to deliver the quick consolidation of democracy and sustained economic growth initially hoped for and expected (Carothers 2006, 217). The decline of the welfare state has resulted in dramatic declines in economic output and standards of living. The weakened state-sponsored social safety net has pushed the burden of social provision onto the private sector and individual families (Harper 1999, 5), which has had negative consequences for women. The gendered nature of the transition has become obvious to researchers, and women have witnessed the loss of the social and economic gains made in the Soviet era.

Involvement and Representation in Politics

The resultant gender gaps were pervasive within the economic and political sectors of Armenian society. The dominance of a single socialist political ideology was replaced by a proliferation of myriad parties representing a broad political spectrum. Power was decentralized to local levels of government, yet the responsiveness of central authorities to the periphery remained slow and lacked inertia.

After independence in 1991, Armenia, in the process of reform, eliminated all of the Soviet-era quotas for including women in political life. This resulted in a dramatic decline, for example, in the number of women participating in government and politics relative to the Soviet era. A modified minimum quota for female members of parliament (MPs) was reintroduced in 1999, which stipulated that a minimum of 5.0 percent of MPs must be women, and by 2003, 4.6 percent of all MPs were women (Dahlerup and Freidenvall 2005, 33). These numbers were meager relative to the nominal proportion of female MPs in Soviet Armenia, when the Soviet quota system had forced officials to recruit women to meet the quotas prescribed by Moscow, which were meant to present an image of equality more than a true, substantive parity in power. As a result, in Soviet times these handpicked women were rarely among the most politically assertive candidates; the communist government prevented most assertive and independent-thinking women (and men) from entering politics precisely because of their outspokenness and assertiveness. Regardless of the shortcomings of the Soviet system, the loss of substantive quantitative quotas has left women out of contemporary Armenian politics. This situation is exacerbated by a pervasive cultural assumption in Armenia that politics is a fundamentally masculine pursuit involving power struggles, property disputes, corruption, and the like (Pavilionirn 1998, 103).

An examination of women’s participation in contemporary politics reveals that women are indeed very underrepresented in important decision-making positions of the government, as well as within the legal and lawmaking branches of the government. Women are more visible as administrative staff in various levels of government rather than in key policy-making roles. At the end of 2004, there were only seven female MPs in the republican parliament (the National Assembly) of Armenia, which nonetheless is an increase from the four female MPs in 2001 (National Statistical Service 2005, 91). Similarly, the court system has not witnessed significant change in female representation in the 2001-2004 period. Female judges consistently make up approximately 20.0 percent of all judges, and female lawyers make up 35.0 percent of all attorneys (National Statistical Service 2005, 92). As of 2004, 7.0 percent of governmental ministers and deputy ministers were women. In contrast, the number of women working on the staffs of the various ministries is substantially larger, although there are marked sectored variances in those figures. For instance, women make up approximately 60.0 percent of the Ministry of Health staff, whereas the corresponding figure is 20.0 percent for the Transportation and Communication Ministry (National Statistical Service 2005, 93). In 2004, women made up 46.0 percent of the president’s staff, compared with 54.0 percent of those working in the entire executive branch staff. The numbers are similar in local government bodies; in 2004 there were no female provincial governors, but women were relatively more represented on the staffs of local and regional administrations.

Participation in the Economy

As the socialist system in Armenia collapsed, the Soviet-era economic structures were replaced with new market structures, in particular by a small- and medium-sized enterprise sector. Losses of subsidies and traditional trade links resulted in massive unemployment and dislocation in manufacturing and the technology-intensive sector. For purposes of comparison, similar transition processes in Russia also resulted in significant job losses, of which 80.0 percent were positions previously held by women. As noted by LaFont (2001, 205) women were nearly three times more likely than men to be unemployed in the immediate postcommunist period throughout the former Soviet region. An explanation of the preponderance of women becoming unemployed after independence is that in the Soviet-era women were particularly concentrated in the manufacturing enterprises, which were hit the worst by the demise of the Soviet economic system. In the new, postcommunist economy even those women who used to hold managerial positions have moved to predominantly nonmanagerial positions, which are often the only ones available to them in the service sector of the new economy. As a result, in Armenia, women’s employment numbers in health care, hotel services, financial intermediation, and education are currently either equal to or even exceed those of men, although, again, these positions occupied by women are nonmanagerial and hold limited career-advancement prospects.

Women Within the Armenian Microfinance Sector

Microfinance was introduced into postcommunist Armenia in the mid-1990s, when several transnational NGOs with long experience in microfinance imported the sector into the country. As elsewhere around the world, generating employment and reducing poverty were major rationales for microfinance institutions in Armenia, and women were a primary target group for some of these ventures.

The major microcredit providers by nonbank financial institutions are Aregak (created by the United Methodist Committee on Relief), Kamurj (created by Catholic Relief Services and Save the Children), and Foundation for International Community Assistance (FINCA)-Armenia. Aregak maintains a client base of 20,342 (as of 2006), of which 99 percent are women, according to MixMarket, a Web-based, not-for-profit private organization that serves as a global microfinance information platform. Interestingly, the share of women among the clients of Kamurj and FINCA has been reduced over the years, although FINCA International is known for working predominantly with women elsewhere around the world.

Some commercial banks have also been active in providing financial services to microentrepreneurs, such as the Agricultural Cooperative Bank of Armenia. However, as commercial players these entities do not have social impact as their primary goal. Therefore, it is not surprising that the number of women borrowers they reach hovers around 25 percent of their total client base. At this point, the donor funding earmarked for microfinance is drying up in Armenia, and the microfinance institutions are trying to attract private sources of funding. It is unlikely that such a growth strategy will produce dramatic increases in the share of women entrepreneurs served by microfinance institutions.

The postindependence Armenian government, facing financial and economic difficulties, has reduced the government’s social role to one that is focused on specific, vulnerable groups. This is in stark contrast to Soviet-era policies of universal welfare coverage. Many believe women have been the most tangible losers in this policy shift. They have lost such state-provided social provisions as paid maternity leaves and subsidized child care, which were important factors in enabling their integration into the workforce during the Soviet era. In the case of child care in contemporary Armenia, the responsibility has shifted to family networks where possible. Ironically, at the same time the retirement age has been increased to reduce the state’s pension expenditures. The combination of these policies has strained the ability of family networks, such as grandparents, to care for children of younger women seeking further education or employment. LaFont argues:

The communist legacy created a tradition of women’s participation in the labor force, but the new governments are not building on that existing structure. With social policies being ignored, the threat is the devolution of women’s rights. In the long-term, without policies protecting their reproductive role, women are further disadvantaged. Yet the state has to have the desire and the power to enforce such policies. The role of the state is to ensure the rights and well-being of its citizens, but “cowboy capitalism” has no such conscience. The goal of the state should be to enforce existing laws and policies which protect women’s participation in the labor force, not to stand aside as they are eroded by the force of the market economy. (LaFont 2001, 213)

Women and the Political Economy of Post-Soviet Transition

The remainder of this section draws from the National Statistical Service of the Republic of Armenia to illustrate some of the details and subtleties of the gendered transition as manifested in Armenia. Perhaps the most vivid and telling data relate to unemployment. From 1998 to 2003, the official rates of female unemployment fluctuated around 13.0-14.0 percent; in contrast, male unemployment was almost half of that figure in the same period. In 1998, there were 41,000 registered male unemployed and 92,800 female unemployed. The corresponding numbers for 2002 were 41,600 and 85,700, respectively. Note that the figures represent unemployed persons who registered with the government and who were self-reported as actively seeking employment (National Statistical Service 2004, 59). According to the United States Agency for International Development, in 2000 women made up approximately 45.0 percent of the workforce but constituted 66.0 percent of the unemployed, which is a much higher proportion than the analogous indicators reported by the National Statistical Service of Armenia.

The minimal role of contemporary Armenian governmental institutions in job creation, particularly relative to the government’s analogous role in the Soviet era, is an important contributor to the feminization of unemployment and poverty. Since independence, Armenia has embraced neoliberal policies of economic reform. The resultant shift of the burden of job creation to the private sector was difficult for the populace because the emergent private sector was limited and extremely weak in the early stages of the transition. Soviet-era state industrial subsidies diminished rapidly in Armenia after independence, and most forms of state-sponsored retraining or similar assistance to the newly unemployed have also been insufficient. Male workers, who were the majority of the industrial managerial class during the Soviet era, were better positioned to engage the post-Soviet “new economy” than women, who constituted the majority of the nonmanagement working class. The predominantly male managers of many enterprises were better positioned to take advantage of the post-Soviet privatization of these enterprises, thereby placing themselves firmly within the new economy. Economic exclusion of women was an immediate consequence.

These postindependence structural transformations within the Armenian economy have been significant for employment prospects and the status of women in public life. Little data are available concerning the gender ratios of jobs for the state, public, and civil society sectors of the country. However, some data are available demonstrating the dramatic decline of employment opportunities in these sectors. In 1998, for example, 405,500 jobs were available within the state sector, but that number had diminished to 285,800 as of 2002. According to the National Statistical Service of Armenia (2004, 51), 15,800 jobs were available in 1998 within public organization (e.g., libraries, state-operated clinics), but by 2004 that number had declined to 4,500 (National Statistical Service 2004, 51). Interestingly, the non-state sector experienced a modest growth in 1998-2002. In 1998, 916,000 jobs were available within the non-state sector, increasing to 931,400 in 1999 and 942,200 in 2001, but declining to 816,100 in 2002 (National Statistical Service 2004, 51). Nevertheless, the modest increases in jobs within the private sector have been insufficient to offset the loss of jobs in the public sector.

Additional data on post-Soviet unemployment trends reveal that economic dislocation within the state and public sectors has disproportionately affected women. In 1998, 696,000 men and 641,300 women were employed within the economy as a whole. As of 2002, the numbers were 581,800 and 524,300, respectively (National Statistical Service 2004, 59); the decline in the total was attributed to increased overall unemployment and emigration. A more nuanced picture emerges when the gender ratios of those employed within the various economic sectors are considered. For example, light manufacturing industry, which disproportionately employs more women in its manufacturing workforce, has experienced a rapid decline in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse; the total number of employed persons in this sector declined from 27,800 in 1998 to 22,900 in 1999 and 12,100 in 2002. Another sector with an extensive female workforce is the food-processing industry, which experienced a decline from 16,000 employed persons in 1998 to 10,800 employed people in 2002 according to state statistics. As of 2004, the sectors of the economy within which women were concentrated included education (79.0 percent women and 21.0 percent men), health and social services (76.0 percent women and 24.0 percent men), and financial mediation (66.0 percent women and 33.0 percent men) (National Statistical Service 2005, 71).

Education is an important component for indicating the meaningful and sustainable engagement of women within the new economy. Hence, the discussion turns to some of the gender trends prevalent in this sector. When examining the association between education, employment, and unemployment, it becomes evident that those who had vocational training during the Soviet era were the most affected by the post-Soviet transition. This particular group constituted around 81.9 percent of the total unemployed in 2003 (National Statistical Service 2003, 59). In contrast, only 12.0 percent of persons, men or women, with higher education (college or university degrees) were registered as unemployed in 2003.

As of 2003-2004, there was relative gender parity within the institutions of higher education. This contrasts sharply with the highly feminized indicators for unemployment and poverty. It appears that educational achievements of women at the college or university level do not directly convert to a similar outcome within the labor market upon graduation. Another interesting trend is the distribution of fields of specialization in college and universities by gender (see Table 1) (National Statistical Booklet Service 2005, 52).

Specialization Percentage of Students in State Higher Education Institutions Percentage of Students in Private Higher Education Institutions
Women Men Women Men
Source: National Statistical Service of the Republic of Armenia, Women and Men in Armenia: A Statistical Booklet, Yerevan (2005).
NA = not available.
Pedagogy 67.7 32.3 98.5 1.5
Art 51.7 48.3 74.5 25.5
Health 34.2 65.8 65.8 34.2
Jurisprudence 33.2 66.8 52.2 47.8
Economics 39.4 60.6 55.3 44.7
Agriculture 27.5 72.5 NA* NA*
Industry and construction 21.3 78.7 96.2 3.8
Others 66.0 34.0 76.7 23.3

Table 1. Gender Distribution among Students in Armenian State and Private Institutions of Higher Education, 2003-2004.

In many fields of study within private institutions the higher representation of women is explained by compulsory military service for college-aged men; deferments are granted to men attending state universities. This deferment results in the preferential exclusion of many women from public institutions of higher education in favor of men. In this respect, state universities and colleges become safe havens for male students, perpetuating documented corruption in entrance examinations for state university admissions. This trend is replicated in postgraduate higher education, where military service exemptions also apply. There are higher numbers of military-aged (under 30 years) men in postgraduate schools, but this trend does not hold for students older than 30 years, which is the current maximum age for compulsory military service. For example, for the year 2002, among undergraduates and graduate students younger than 30 years, 2.2 percent of these students were women pursuing degrees in the sciences versus 7.4 percent men pursuing science degrees. However, for the 31- to 39-year-old age group, the corresponding numbers (by that age mostly graduate students) were 8.4 percent women and 6.7 percent men, reflecting a relative parity that is a consequence of the absence of military service for this age group. This gender parity persists in other age categories over 30 years and for other fields as well.

Perhaps the most telling indicator of the degree of successful integration in the new postindependence economy is type of employment. As of 1999, 56.0 percent of men and 72.0 percent of women identified themselves as a hired, nonmanagerial worker. In 2004, the numbers were 52.5 percent and 61.2 percent, respectively. In 1999, among those who identified themselves as an employer, 21.0 percent were women and 79.0 percent were men. In 2004, only 6.0 percent of those who self-identified as employers were women and 94.0 percent were men. In 1999, 30.0 percent of the self-employed were women and 70.0 percent were men. In 2004, 26.9 percent of self-employed were women and 73.1 percent were men. Interestingly, in 1999, 38.0 percent of those listed as “members of an industrial cooperative” were women and 62.0 percent were men; in 2002, the numbers were 50.0 percent and 50.0 percent (National Statistical Service 2005, 71, 82). Such a gender disparity in the important ownership and managerial sector of a free-market economic system is particularly paradoxical in light of the relative gender parity within institutions of education.

In terms of double employment in 2004, 60.5 percent of men and 39.5 percent of women with higher education were employed in more than one place. The indicators for secondary special education were 38.1 percent for men and 61.9 percent for women. And 27.8 percent of those with secondary basic education who worked in two places were women and 72.2 percent were men. The numbers among those with basic general and primary education were 66.0 percent for men and 33.3 percent for women (National Statistical Service 2005, 82). The higher levels of men working in more than two jobs likely explains the much higher reported wages for men and women in 2003-2004 in most of the sectors of the economy, including industry, trade, education, science and scientific services, culture and art, agriculture, government bodies, and health and social security (National Statistical Service 2005, 81). It is also important to note that women have fewer assets during the post-Soviet privatization of state assets than men, and they are in general lagging behind men in business ownership.

Civil Society and Women’s Issues: Organizations or a Movement?

Many voices within Western feminist literature were puzzled by the lack of mobilization of women in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse (Kamenitsa 1998, 4). The political liberalization that swept the former communist states created windows of opportunity and multiple openings for advocacy and organizing by women, among many other social groups within the newly “pluralized” political forums. Social, political, and economic explanations have been offered to explain this situation. Specifically, the identity crisis within the region in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse, the resurgence of ethnicity and nationalist movements, economic hardship, the weakness of postcommunist civil society, mistrust of centralization, and a resultant persistence of largely autonomous organizations are among some of the most frequently cited reasons provided for this condition.

In the context of Armenia, all of these factors were present. The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict united the population toward a single political cause—supporting the Armenian-populated enclave in Azerbaijan in this secessionist conflict—and served to solidify Armenian identity in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union. In this respect, these developments have produced solidarity between men and women and have also enabled a political revival and the maintenance of public spirit. All other issues seemed to be secondary. Matynia is correct to argue that “the process of discovering, acknowledging, and defining women’s problems is not an easy one, especially in the context of postcommunist societies undergoing systemic transformations” (Matynia 1994, 352). Matynia argues that the rise of nationalist ideologies in the postcommunist era have produced an emphasis on the nation’s rights as opposed to individual rights, including women’s rights. Specifically, she asserts:

There existed a sense of solidarity between men and women under state socialism, since they regarded themselves as equally repressed by the centrally controlled institutional structures of the state: the energies of every social movement were directed entirely toward activities having the potential to effect systemic change. Therefore, as most women in these countries point out, all other issues seemed at that time to be of secondary importance. (Matynia 1994, 352)

Moreover, Armenian culture places a strong emphasis on the family as the social unit of organization within society. The severe economic decline in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse has created a number of difficulties for this cultural unit as a whole. As a result, the importance of the survival of the family has eclipsed individual concerns for women’s issues, and it probably explains the lack of public commitment by women to voice their causes. Women’s rights, as with human rights in general, advance a focus on an individual, which can be alien in a group-oriented culture. In this regard, the greater emphasis on women’s rights is largely preconditioned on further advances in political liberalization, the building of democratic institutions, and the internalization of liberal values by the society at large, with the subsequent individualization being its most tangible cultural outcome. Alternatively, Armenian women will have to articulate their own narratives and consolidate themselves as a distinct interest group. Their needs, demands, and aspirations will have to be better aligned with the socioeconomic and political realities of postcommunist Armenia.

The retrenchment of the Soviet-era welfare state has been a significant setback to the condition of women in the region, including Armenia. The elimination of the socialist safety net has complicated the ability of women to remain active within the workplace. In this respect, the neoliberal economics, as advanced by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, which have been calling for cuts in social welfare systems (Stiglitz 2003, 20), have directly undermined the state of women in the region. Economic hardships have also increasingly confined women to the daily concerns of their families. In many postcommunist states, democracy is far from being consolidated. Market structures have failed to deliver the expected prosperity and development. In Armenia, as in many other postcommunist states, the Soviet-era cleavage between the state and the society has reasserted itself (Kamenitsa 1998, 5), manifested in the opposition of the society (men and women) versus the state and state capitalism. As the data presented earlier indicate, the emergent market structures have been quite discriminatory toward women in Armenia, reflecting the failure of women to emerge as a socio-political group with visible and tangible shared interests that could be advanced only by their political mobilization. In brief, effective articulation of women’s interests and their framing and integration within the broader policy-development processes in Armenia has not been forthcoming.

Another important factor explaining the lack of mobilization of women rests with the weakness of civil society in postcommunist Armenia (Howard 2002, 157). Howard highlights the persistence of friendship networks, the mistrust of organizations, and overall postcommunist disappointment as inhibiting and obstructing the emergence of a vibrant civil society. The energy of the people to engage in public life in Armenia appears to have died down with the demonstrations for the reunification of the Nagorno-Karabakh territory. Women were very active in that movement immediately after independence, but they seem to be largely nonexistent within contemporary public forums. Their public activism has evaporated without being translated into a broader, successor movement.

Many discussions on civil society in the postcommunist world point out that the emergence of an NGO sector in a region is an important indicator for democratic consolidation. Moreover, observers of the postcommunist region also highlight that women tend to lead the emergent NGO sector in the postcommunist world. Armine Ishkanian (2003b, 7) has documented this trend in the context of Armenia, arguing that the exclusion of women from state political forums has been offset by their surge in numbers within the NGO sector. There are few reasons to be optimistic about such a development. Indeed, organizational density is quite often taken as a measure of a strong civil society within Western literature (Matthews 1997, 53; Deacon, Hulse, and Stubbs 1997, 155; Keck and Sikkink 1998, 9). However, in Armenia the NGO sector is highly fragmented, poorly organized, and varies greatly in terms of the strength of its organizations. Some of the NGOs are considered dormant (registered but inactive). Others are driven by their missions, and some of these are more donor responsive than others. According to studies carried out by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), there were more than 3,500 registered NGOs in Armenia in 2003, but only two-thirds were active in some capacity (USAID 2003, 21). Moreover, most of these NGOs included fewer than 10 people. By some, perhaps generous, accounts only about 20,000 people are engaged within the NGO sector in a country with a population of more than 3 million.

Approximately 70 of the existing NGOs are devoted to women’s issues. However, nearly all of these NGOs are focused on highly diverse issues ranging from health and domestic violence. Although these issues are very important in their own right, they rarely add up to a cohesive societal women’s movement. The mandates of these NGOs are fragmented and exhibit few shared goals. As discussed, in many cases these NGOs have been created as a response to Western donor funding or an international initiative for action in a particular issue area. Weak NGO accountability to the population is a consequence of this reality. Even the actual form and the organizational type of the NGO is a Western creation, which also contributes to the weakness of grassroots links among these women’s groups. Institutional replication of the NGO model has done little to activate a strong civil society and women’s movement in Armenia.

The relatively poor embeddedness of women’s NGOs within the larger society is very symptomatic of the absence of a women’s movement in Armenia and quite representative of similar trends in other parts of the postcommunist region. Greater coordination and integration of efforts among these NGOs are a prerequisite for the emergence of a robust women’s movement. Such measures may entail some level of centralization, which is a trend strongly resisted by all social groups in postcommunist regions. For instance, Slawka Walczewska, a cofounder of the Foundation of Women in Krakow, asserted as much in an interview with Elzbieta Matynia in August 1993, when she commented on the state of women’s issues in Poland:

We have many groups—but a movement? Women are extremely resistant to any idea of centralization or of furthering the formal structures of their activities. None of the existing groups is willing to join or submit itself to a larger structure. (Matynia 1994, 372)

The general apathy toward associations, groups, and other ingredients for a strong civil society is largely a socialist legacy, which is also replicated in the context of women’s NGOs and largely explains the lack of a strong and vibrant women’s movement. Another aspect of the socialist legacy that has had a negative impact on the status of women rests with the top-down governmental policies toward women during the Soviet era. Some observers argue that women in post-Soviet settings, including Armenia, did not have to fight for their rights, because the government provided them with many benefits and the generous welfare state enabled their integration within the labor force. As a result, women never developed the skills, social networks, or organizations to fight for their rights and consequently have failed to articulate a commitment for their issues in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse. In short, the top-down governmental policies of the communist era did indeed generate tangible social and economic outcomes for Armenian women. However, the same approach prevented the development of a solid institutional base or capacity among women to realize their potential once the welfare state was weakened drastically by waves of neoliberal policies as introduced during the transition to market economy and democratic political system. In sum, the type of capitalism that the decade-old transitions have produced in a large part of the postcommunist world is far from modernizing. In many cases the fragile, nascent market structures are nested within highly paternalistic yet weak states. Such states have maintained a capacity to control the market but have been severely weakened in terms of structures providing public welfare services, including social policies that benefit women, which the Soviet state and its surrogates had been able to offer previously. Therefore, it is hard to separate women’s issues from the larger socioeconomic and political transformations underway in the region. At the same time, a women’s movement, if articulated and mobilized effectively, could also serve as a vehicle to facilitate these very transformations.